The First Desire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The First Desire follows Buffalo, New York’s, Cohen family from 1929 through 1950, beginning with the disappearance of the oldest daughter, Goldie, who had been holding the family together since the death of their mother. After Goldie’s departure, this task falls to the second oldest daughter, Sadie Cohen Feldstein, who is also trying to keep her own young marriage afloat. Left in the family house with domineering patriarch Abe are moody, masculine Jo, handsome, charming and shiftless Irving, and the eccentric and troubled Celia.

The novel skillfully reveals the intricate Cohen family dynamic and the tremendous force it exerts upon its members. Goldie feels the burden of family so strongly she is compelled to escape to California in order to preserve her own individuality. Irving evades family responsibilities by his utter irresponsibility, finally joining the military to dodge his gambling debts, and Jo works as a secretary to avoid the stifling atmosphere of the house. Celia’s mental instability insures that she has no familial responsibilities at all. This unremitting struggle between individual needs and family demands provides the novel’s chief conflict.

Nancy Reisman’s first novel, The First Desire betrays her short story roots; many chapters could easily stand on their own. The Cohen sibling voices appear in alternating chapters, as does that of Lillian Schumacher, Abe’s mistress. Each well-defined voice adds to the complete portrait of a troubled, but nonetheless strong, family. Reisman’s style is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf as she creates an absorbing and distinct world through vivid domestic details. Although not heavy on plot, the novel nonetheless is riveting and holds the readers interest throughout.